From Religion Unplugged
By Julia Duin
(REVIEW) Two thousand years ago, a no-name Jewish preacher died a violent death, then was resurrected from that death — so his followers said — and, by doing so, founded an empire that lasts to this day.
British historian Tom Holland, author of “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World,” cannot get over how what he calls “the image of a god dead on a cross” changed world history. Thus, an obscure rabbi in first-century Israel started the world’s largest religion, impacting billions and forming the basis of Western civilization.
In a book rich in historical vignettes, it is the paradox of the weak overcoming the strong that causes much struggle on the part of the author. How could weakness end in victory? How could a slave be king of the universe? How could victimization be a source of power? How could Rome fall while Christianity grew?
But such things happened and, as if grudgingly admitting Jesus’ ultimate victory, the American edition of “Dominion” has the famous Salvador Dali “Christ of St. John of the Cross” painting on the cover. It shows a crucified Jesus suspended over the cosmos.
Before embarking on this enormous work of more than 600 pages, Holland had done several works on ancient Greece, Rome and the Dark Ages, and his prior scholarship is clear from the opening page. We hear of the development of wisdom in ancient Greece and monstrosity of Nero’s Rome where the violent use of slaves, infanticide and abuse of children was more depraved than anything we know today. As for the early Christians, they refused to worship the various Roman emperors of that era, so were martyred in droves.
Holland does not write about the life of Jesus and never deals with the Resurrection narratives, as they are irrelevant to him. But they were vital to the rise of Christianity (why would people die for a faith unless they believed it to be true?) and Holland’s refusal to understand this most central aspect of Christianity is where “Dominion” misses the point from the very beginning. The book only engages with Jesus as an uncanny character unique in world literature who happened to start a religion that was systematized by the Paul of Tarsus.
And it was a religion that didn’t go away. Holland is at his best when supplying a bird’s-eye view on how the spread of Christianity took place in the out-of-the-way corners of Europe, along with historical tidbits that bring these eras to life. The book visits places like second-century Lyon, home of early church fathers such as Irenaeus, and Alexandria, home to early theologians such as Origen. He delves into the influence of Basil and Gregory, the fourth-century bishops of Cappadocia and Nyssa, and their saintly sister Macrina. It’s these histories that make the book such an interesting read. These are the people who brought the Near East and Europe around to Christianity. Europe was converted from the north as well as from the south, thanks to the Irish who formed a Christian stronghold in the fifth century, then radiated out from there.
The author takes special pains to describe how much of the Christian history of the Dark Ages took place in France and highlights the influence of saints like Martin of Tours, a fourth-century Roman soldier-turned-Christian convert. It was near Tours, in 732, that Charles Martel defeated the Arab hordes, forever ending Muslim hopes of conquering Europe. From then on, the Latin West was ascendant. There were a few hiccups after that, such as the Albigensians and the Cathars of southern France, both streams of Christianity deemed heretical by Pope Gregory IX.
There is such a complete listing of every Dark Age trend that eventually led to the Renaissance that it’s shocking the book totally avoids mention of the Great Schism of 1054, when Eastern and Western Christianity formally split. It’s a major void in the narrative.
The same goes for John Wycliffe, the 14th-century scholar who appeared several centuries later in the book almost as a footnote. We’re not even told of his work in translating the Scriptures into the vernacular (Middle English), which is what got him declared a heretic by the Council of Constance in 1415. The bubonic plague, which killed one-third of Europe around the 14th century, got very little mention as well.
There was a lot of ink spent on Martin Luther and the papacy, but no mention of the invention of the printing press, which made the Reformation possible. Not until page 345 is there any mention of China or the realms east of Jerusalem, as if there’d been no Christianity of note planted there in all of Asia. India is eventually mentioned, in relation to how the British brought Christianity there. Again, the book majors on Europe — and later America — as the world drivers of Christianity, only including in the last chapters mentions of immense Christian growth in Africa and Asia.
Holland has been criticized by other book reviewers of getting too wrapped up in his prose and thereby losing the reader in word clouds. This is true. The book’s scope is so huge that even the author gets lost.
But his main point remains clear: the West is so imbued with Christian thought that it’s impossible to detach it from its Christian roots. The very ideas that the strong should take care of the weak; that every life — even those who are handicapped or sick — have meaning; that the needy should be fed and clothed, are Christian at their very core. We take such notions for granted, but they were not always part of what civilized people thought in Rome, Greece, China, pre-Columbian America and so on.
Even the new American republic, influenced as it was by the future instigators of the French Revolution, was based on Christian assumptions. The Founding Fathers believed that all men, no matter Jew, Quaker, Calvinist or Catholic, were created in the image of God and equal, endowed with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such ideals were light-years away from how the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed mankind. The seeds of America’s founding documents, Holland points out, were taken from the book of Genesis.
For 2,000 years, Christianity has been the very root system of the West, its very soil. Even the French Revolution — atheistic as it was — could not change that. This is the point that should be expressed in Western Civ classes around the globe.
There are nice touches at the end, such as the inclusion of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” masterpiece as an illustration of a 20th-century myth with massive Christian connections. For those unfamiliar with the work of Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, his trilogy has been called the most popular literature of the 20th century. It talks of a king who returns from exile to claim his kingdom; of demonic creatures astride great featherless monster-birds, a hell known as Mordor and an unassuming hobbit who takes on the impossible task of destroying the world’s most evil object — and succeeds but ends up sacrificing himself. Sound familiar?
Holland points out Tolkien’s spiritual opposites were the Beatles, who sought to detach love from its Christian theological moorings by singing of a love that was unattached to God. The “Mother Mary” alluded to in “Let it Be” was not the Virgin Mary, but another concept altogether. Still, to express love itself, the Beatles had to borrow from Christian terminology. There’s no other standard out there.
The final chapters that are based in America are some of Holland’s weakest, as he misunderstands evangelicalism as it was then known in the 1960s. He likens it to the far more powerful political force it became in the 21st century, forgetting that in the 1960s, it was seen as fundamentalism and a poor, distant cousin to the far stronger mainline Protestantism and Vatican II-era Catholicism that dominated the landscape.
And far from fading from view, as the Beatles hoped it would, Christianity has become more universal than ever as its numbers in the global south overwhelm those in the traditionally Christian north. Christian Africa has only begun spreading its wings in recent decades. China may emerge at some point as the world’s most Christian nation due to the huge growth there. In North Korea, it’s not Islam or Buddhism that the leaders are trying to suppress; it’s Christianity.
Despite all this, Holland concludes that the religion on which Western civilization is based is all a clever myth. But that “myth” won’t go away. He ends the book thus:
“This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it — the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe — that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity and the civilization to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been.”Julia Duin is a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor or reporter for five newspapers, has published six books and has master’s degrees in journalism and religion. She currently freelances out of Seattle for the Seattle Times, Washington Post and other outlets.